Is suspending a person’s driver’s license an effective punitive measure? This is a vital question for Michigan, which suspended over 475,000 of its citizens’ driver’s licenses in 2010 alone. That’s roughly 6.7 percent of Michigan’s driving population: more than one license suspension per 15 drivers.
It may be wise to prevent someone from handling a vehicle when they have been driving drunk or causing accidents. But some states have turned to license suspension as a broader form of punishment, stacking the right to drive on top of the fines and prison sentences courts already impose. Michigan is among the most conspicuous members of this crowd: over 95 percent of individuals who had their licenses suspended in 2010 committed non-driving related offenses.
Today 86 percent of Americans use a car or motorcycle to get to work. Without a driver’s license, they’re at risk of losing their job and their income. Many places of employment even require a valid driver’s license before hiring. These conditions have made the driver’s license an increasingly necessary tool to rise out of poverty and unemployment, and cast a long shadow over the practice of punitive license suspension.
Individuals who ignore their license suspensions and risk-taking to the road anyway often do so because they don’t have a better means of getting around. The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration estimates 75 percent of individuals with suspended licenses risk it and drive anyway. Those that get caught are charged with Driving While License Suspended (DWLS). In addition to carrying a fine of up to $500 for a first offense, it levies a variety of mandatory civil fees, including an additional $125 clearance fee for license reinstatement. The potential fine doubles to $1,000 on a second offense and more civil fees are hefted on. All of these costs (plus any prior debt) must be paid for an individual’s license to be reinstated. Each time an individual is caught trying to drive with a suspended license, these additional fines and fees make it harder for them to return to driving legally.
Michigan regularly suspends its citizens’ driver’s licenses as a punishment for a vast array of civil and criminal offenses, with some offenses carrying a mandatory license suspension. While suspending licenses for unsafe driving has an understandable value to the public, many of the offenses that Michigan suspends an individual’s license for have no relation to traffic safety. These suspensions cut off a vital lifeline for individuals in the workforce, and herald an endless cycle of fines, court costs, and liabilities that make escaping the criminal justice system nearly impossible. Michigan workers aren’t the only victims: the state itself spends countless man-hours and taxpayer dollars prosecuting and imprisoning individuals for the crime of Driving While License Suspended, even while burdened with the ninth largest prison system in the nation.
This policy brief explores the reasons Michigan suspends driver’s licenses, the consequences of doing so, and the ways to handle these challenges moving forward.